Vail Daily travel: Baking in the Baltics
August 13, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment of Matthew Cull’s summer-long series about his cycling journey through Iceland and eastern Europe. Cull has cycled through 50 countries on six continents. Visit his website at http://www.matthewjkcull.com or contact him at email@example.com.
As the plane sank through the thick brown slick of hot, humid polluted air I wandered if I’d made a mistake coming to the mainland Europe. I’d traded the clean crisp of Iceland for the swelter of a European summer heat wave. I touched down in Tallinn, Estonia, put my bike back together in the arrivals hall, and rode off into the Baltic States.
The plan: To cycle south through as many Eastern European countries as possible, climbing the high point of as many of these countries as practicable, meanwhile catching as many old towns, quaint villages, bucolic rural scenes and imposing mountain vistas as I ccould squeeze into a twisty route south. Finish: Istanbul, Turkey, at some unknown point in the future.
I spent a couple of days roaming Tallinn with its wonderful old world, old town. There was the partially intact stone encircling wall with cylindrical towers sporting conical hats in terra-cotta tiles. Inside, a maze of cobble streets ran through lines of delightfully preserved old multistory buildings in an array of pastel colors, and churches with spires that lorded over the town. Sidewalk cafes abounded and the place was crammed with fan waving, camera clicking tourists fresh off the cruise ship in the port, (I counted four huge cruise liners and four equally large Trans Baltic ferries at one time). And the highest concentration of attractive young local women on the planet.
I loaded up and cycled south into the dead flat of the Baltics. I coursed south-east through a mosaic of forest, fields and farmhouses hidden in the foliage. The heat sapped and wilted, the sun hammered and the only relief was a slight cooling headwind. I camped in the forest that doubled as a mosquito factory.
A couple of days south the ride was less a cycle tour than a cycling progression from one swimming hole, one ice cream cooler, to the next. I passed through Tartu, a fine town on the banks of a river, its streets full of craft stalls as part of a local festival. In the far south of Estonia I scaled the mighty Suur Munamagi (1,040 feet) the highest point in the land.
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Crossing into Latvia the cycling took a nose dive. Latvia has not taken to westernization well. After Estonia’s smooth pavement, Latvia was either busy bumpy highway or bumpier gravel. I headed south-west and camped on top of Latvia’s highest peak, Gaizankalns (1,028 feet), with a sunset view over a land of forest and farm. I bolted south along busy highways and clouds of truck raised dust and breathed again crossing into Lithuania was instantly an upgrade. The roads were smooth, the traffic thin, slower and the people a little more courteous. Delightful, old weathered wood homes, often yellow in color, sat among gardens of flowers, lawn, and shady trees. Even the smallest villages had imposing churches with beautiful, clear coated interiors. Totem pole like crosses dotted villages and roadside. Dirt tracks lead to peaceful lake-side camp spots. There was the faintest glimmer of friendliness in the locals.
I stopped in on Vilnius, the capital, its old town with a dramatic baroque church on every corner and a happening outdoor cafe scene on a Saturday night. I took a train out to Trakai, a red brick castle set on an small island in a lake dotted with yachts, windsurfers, and paddle boats. Folks swam and soaked in the sun at every available gap in the reeds that surrounded the lake.
I cycled straight towards Belarus, taking a right at the last moment and climbing Aukstojas Hill (970 feet), the most indistinguishable high point so far. I cycled west through the forests of southern Lithuania and passed into Poland and turned back south.
Aided by enormous quantities of flat land and an intricate road network, there are many avid cyclists in Poland. As I rode south through eastern Poland I repeatedly met friendly packs of folks out for a weekend or week of cycling. I repeatedly bumped into color-coded, cycling routes that cut through farmland or forest on existing minor roads. There were kids out enjoying summer vacation and elderly folk propped up on rickety old steeds moving at geologic speed on rustic missions.
I visited Bialowiecz National Park, home of a surviving herd of European Bison. The bison once roamed throughout Europe and came close to extinction through the world wars. I took a walk through the only island of old growth low land forest left in Europe.
Still the flatness continued and with it the heat. I wound a sneaky course along country back roads through dozens of minuscule settlements that lined the road; past folks harvesting plush fields of grain on huge old combine monsters; past folks dressed in their Sunday best on their way to Catholic or Orthodox churches; past old solid dark wood beam houses; past madly barking dogs fortunately restrained by fence or chain; past crosses in a variety of sizes, colors and styles and decorated with flowers; and along roads occasionally lined with avenues of trees making shady tunnels for heat weary cyclists.
I explored the wonderful old towns of Dublin and Zamosc and visited Majdanek and Belzec, death camps where, between them, 735,000 people were executed by the Nazis as part of the Final Solution.
Passing into Ukraine was like dropping out of a helicopter into a third world country. Beautiful gleaming churches in gold and silver rose above forest, village, and roads that were little more than continuous strips of potholes and lakes from passing thunderstorms.
I am now in the city of Lviv, a world apart from the countryside that surrounds it. My long fling with flatness beaming south will soon come to an end. Ahead lay the Carpathian Mountains. I will turn west and follow these mountains through Slovakia, Poland and Czech to Prague. I will be spending some quality time with my age old companion, gravity.